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BATTLE TO BEAT PILL ADDICTION
December 19, 2003
by Rachel Tiffen
Prescription from hell: Ernest Becker was prescribed a drug for 26 years before being told it was addictive. More than half a million Kiwis were put under the spell of addictive pills known as benzodiazepines this year. The pills are prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorder - but in some cases they are ruining lives.
Rangiora resident Ernest Becker was prescribed a Class C, controlled Drug for 26 years by Kiwi doctors before an Australian specialist told him it was addictive. "I asked for the prescription and he (Australian doctor) said: "no, I'm not prescribing this - it's addictive".
He was then sent for a brain scan and told there was nothing wrong with him.
Today, his life in tatters and memory shot, Mr Becker, 66, can't even remember why he went to the doctor when he was first prescribed Rivotril.
Rivotril, a trade name for clonazepam, is a minor tranquilliser and a member of the benzodiazepine drug family.
Clonazepam is now rarely prescribed, but other benzodiazepines, classified as Class C controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2000 are still in circulation - although the numbers are on the decline.
Health Ministry guidelines say prescriptions should be limited to four weeks because of high addiction risk.
Mr Becker wants doctors to warn patients of the addictive nature and potential side effects of the drug group, before handing out prescriptions.
If someone had warned him, he would still have a life.
When he was taking Rivotril Mr Becker suffered blackouts, which he, as a former boxer, attributed to a previous delayed concussion.
He thought the drug was managing the blackouts, when in fact they were causing them. When he stopped taking Rivotril he would blackout - his body's reaction to withdrawing "cold turkey".
Over those 26 years Mr Becker lived a zombie-like existence, stumbling from blackout to blackout - oblivious to the life that was sliding out from beneath him.
Not one doctor faltered in writing out a script and not one doctor warned Mr Becker of the drug's addictive nature.
Mr Becker became unable to function as a person.
He sold his 100 acre race-horse stud in Waikato, and other prized possessions, without even blinking an eyelid.
"I just didn't care about anything. That's what the drugs do to you."
One day he drove from Woodend to Christchurch and back three times, each time ending up in Woodend and wondering why he was there.
The Rivotril prescription label read "limit alcohol", but Mr Becker said it should have read "no alcohol", as one or two drinks at the pub after work would leave him legless.
Townspeople he used to call mates, wrote him off as a drunk.
"I fell over outside the pub (after one jug) and the publican ran me home, later telling someone he was "sick of running Ernie Becker home drunk"."He lost the respect of his colleagues, his friends and several family members.
"I don't know what I would have done without my wife and daughter scraping me off the ground."
Mr Becker is now in the slow, painful process of coming off the drug.
"It's absolutely exhausting and this feeling of despair, it's hopeless. No one knows unless they have been through it."
Once aware of his addiction, Mr Becker consulted several doctors to help him withdraw.
All four of the Christchurch specialists he encountered had no appreciation of the time needed to come off the drug.
He recalled one specialist who wrote out a 28-day withdrawal plan on a rough piece of paper, and then charged him $200.
"Benzodiazepines take years to come off," Mr Becker said. "If it wasn't for Patients' Rights Advocacy activist Anna De Jonge, I would have been a lost cause. She's a Godsend, that woman."
Ms de Jonge, who has spent the last 20 years in New Zealand fighting for injustice at the hands of the medical profession, said withdrawal from a Benzodiazepine addiction was a painstaking, exhausting process.
Mr Becker took his case to a top lawyer, who was confident of a big payout, but asked for $7,000 in fees upfront.
The lawyer did not want to touch legal aid and Mr Becker had no money to his name. He then approached WINZ, who wrote him off as a drunk.
Nowadays, although the days are a little brighter and Mr Becker can now see a light at the end of the tunnel, he will never be the same.
"Since I have been off them (Rivotril), I look out the door and things look different, but when it comes to do something, I still can't do it."
Mr Becker urged patients to question the drugs they were prescribed.
"Don't think what doctors say to you is gospel. Listen by all means, but think carefully."
Mr Ernest Becker
25 Straghan Place
Rangiora SI · New Zealand
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